Elegant and poised in her all black hijab, she tells me that Kumar Gaurav is her favourite Indian actor and that she would love to visit Mumbai one day. All this, as she deftly slices up a bambukeyo (breadfruit) and tosses its slivers into hot coconut oil. Until the breadfruit chips are golden brown, crisp to the bite and moreish delicious. I didn’t even ask for her name, but she’ll always be the lady that gave me my very first taste of something purely homemade and vegan in the Maldives.
Located a mere five minutes away by speedboat from the Baglioni Resort in the Dhaalu Atoll, Rinbudhoo island is also my first taste of a non-resort, locally inhabited Maldivian island. One that’s home to only 300 people. An island steeped in time (ergo, the Kumar Gaurav of the 80s reference), it gives me a great counter view of life away from the aforementioned luxury resort I am staying at.
Also, known as ‘jeweller's island’ thanks to a shipwrecked bunch of Egyptian goldsmiths settling here hundreds of years ago, Rinbudhoo is said to have the most skilled silver and goldsmiths in the Maldives. But I’d add, the most hospitable and lovely people, too, to that list.
Coco is king
It is on this tiny island that I get a crash course in understanding the nuances of the all-pervasive coconut. A staple that is the very backbone of Maldivian vegetarian dishes; almost as much as what tuna (known multifariously as raagondi, kanneli, kandumas or goda, according to the specific species eaten) is to the mainly pescatarian bulk of the cuisine’s repertoire. Again, according to its stages of maturity, the coconut is accorded very specific terms.
I am served the sweet water and soft flesh of the tender version of the coconut called kurumba as a welcome drink and snack by another lady. I am told that the medium-soft, fleshy gabulhi coconut is the de facto ‘dessert coconut’. For, it finds itself grated and eaten with coconut honey to form a treat called dhiyaa hakuru among other sweets like addu bon’di. Originating from the Addu Atoll in the southern part of Maldives, this sweet is made from scraped coconut, jaggery, coconut syrup, and rolled into cylindrical cigar shapes using dried banana leaves.
But it is the third kind of coconut that is the most prized and ubiquitous. Called kaashi, this hard fleshed coconut is what I see first being scraped by another set of ladies and then heated in a pan over firewood till the oils in it separate and come to the surface. Leaving behind crisp, caramel-y bits of grated coconut that I am encouraged to eat hot off the strainer. This rendered, non-pressed oil is what goes into vegetable stir fries like the kopifaai (chard) one, along with scores of vegetarian and vegan curries that also use copious amounts of the two extractions of milk from the kaashi called kaashi kiru.
Back at the Baglioni Resort, I ditch its decidedly Italian food underpinnings and opt to learn to prepare a few Maldivian dishes at the Taste restaurant from chef Kudabe Abdul Rahman, a local Maldivian who fronts the resort’s staff canteen. He tells me how rice—which is eaten boiled or ground into flour—forms the starch base to the cuisine. Along with tubers such as ala (taro) and dandialuvi (cassava), as well as fruits like the aforementioned bambukeyo and kashikeyo (screwpine). With the latter mostly eaten raw after having been cut into thin slices.
Along with Sandeep Kumar, the resort’s chef de cuisine, chef Rahman introduces me to a neat little cache of purely vegan local dishes that are taught to me step-by-step. Some even bereft of the beloved coconut like the zesty cabbage salad that turns up the heat with the use of the red Maldivian chilli. Though I’m told that this Jamaican scotch bonnet doppelganger can be substituted with any small, fruity tasting red chilli.
Said chilli also finds itself along with thick coconut milk in the otherwise mild-tasting kattala riha. A very easy to prepare kattala (sweet potato) curry or riha that’s a firm favourite all over the archipelago and best eaten with rice. The mixed vegetable kiru garudhiya however is perfect when mopped up with either a plain maida-based roshi that’s similar to an Indian roomali roti or with a coconut-stuffed roshi that’s rather sweet, with a dense texture.
To complete my Maldivian vegetarian thali, I am also taught to fry up a batch of fiendishly good and moreish banana and coconut fritters called dhonkeyo kajuru. These, I’m informed, are eaten along with the savoury dishes and not after.
For dessert, there are sweet treats like the bondibai in its many iterations of the handulu (rice) and saagu (sago) ones. This sweet is basically a thick, sticky pudding made with coconut, condensed milk and a starch of choice as above (or even the hallowed breadfruit). To which a dash of cardamom, cinnamon, and pandan leaf extract are added for a distinct flavour.
And while it might seem like a jarring anti-climax to a piece like this on Maldivian vegetarian and vegan dishes, it is not uncommon for locals to pair the bondibai with chili tuna for a sweet, spicy and yes, fishy mouthful.
For those keen on making a vegetarian Maldivian dish at home, Kumar shares the recipe for kattala riha (sweet potato curry).
300 grams of sweet potato
50 grams of onion, chopped
25 grams of Maldivian chilli (substitute with any small fresh red chilli)
30 grams of garlic, slivered
30 grams of capsicum, diced
50 grams of leek, sliced
15 grams of tomato, chopped
25 grams of salt
25 grams of black pepper
30 ml coconut milk (half thick and half thin)
25 ml of vegetable oil